Will Gray

Gray Matter: How ‘Super Seb’ can become a legend

Will Gray

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Four of the five youngest title holders in history will race in F1 in 2011 - but can the sport's new youngest champion Sebastian Vettel make sure he stays at the top to become a great?

Vettel is the youngest driver to score a point, claim pole and take a race victory in Formula One and at just 23 years and 133 days he became F1's youngest-ever champion last year, pushing former table toppers Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso down the order.

But starting young does not necessarily guarantee a long and successful career and a huge range of factors could influence how things progress for the German - including, as Sir Jackie Stewart pointed out recently, the fact that competition in the current field is possibly the toughest ever.

So far, Vettel has certainly shown he has the raw speed to perform at the limit in a top car over the last two years, both in qualifying and in races, but - like Michael Schumacher in his very early years - he has shown a weakness with his consistency. Although Red Bull was guilty of reliability problems in 2010, Vettel also had a hand in throwing away several valuable points-scoring opportunities.

That, however, only suggests that in time he can iron out the mistakes to become an even better driver. He allowed himself to be wound up by mind games in the middle of last year but, rather ominously for his rivals, the fact that he showed impeccable composure under pressure in the closing races means he may have got a handle on this already.

So far, even with his inconsistencies, Vettel has shown he has what it takes to beat his team-mates. Michael Schumacher was the ultimate at bossing a team, getting to the point where he could demand a firm number two alongside him. Ayrton Senna, meanwhile, was forced to race in an 'open' team battle with great rival Alain Prost at McLaren but positioned himself so well politically that he forced Prost out.

Vettel has beaten Mark Webber in both their years together at Red Bull but he has not yet bossed the Australian. Vettel does, however, appear to have the political hand to take control and if he can do so that will be another strong step towards long-term success.

Above all of this, however, long-term success can only be achieved if a driver consistently has one of the fastest cars on the grid.

And this is the dilemma facing Vettel and his long-term future.

It is rare for one team to stay at the front for the duration of driver's career, and many of the youngest champions have benefitted from a change of teams at some point - but jumping ship is a gamble and timing is everything.

Michael Schumacher made the most successful move as a young champion, winning back-to-back titles for Benetton then quickly switching to Ferrari and, after a couple of building years, going on to break every record in the book.

Jacques Villeneuve, in contrast, won the title with Williams then after a difficult year he committed career suicide by moving to newly created BAR rather than joining an established team and went on to persist with the struggling team for years only to quit without a single post-title win.

Vettel is now recognised as F1's hottest property (although Hamilton, Alonso and even Robert Kubica would argue against that) - but he must plot a careful course if he is to remain at the front.

He currently has the best car with Red Bull, but much of that was down to designer Adrian Newey's ability to capitalise on regulation changes in recent years. New tyres this season could upset the order, however, and the relatively stable regulations are also likely to allow the field to catch up as design iterations generate smaller gains.

Major regulation changes are on the horizon, however, and the field could be headed for a massive shake-up in 2013 - so even if Red Bull is caught up this season and the next, Newey's talent with a clean sheet should make them the best place to be when 2013 comes around.

Vettel's contract with Red Bull currently finishes at the end of 2012, but with top seats secured long in advance these days, Vettel's biggest victory this year could be a contract extension with Red Bull...

Youngest F1 world champions and their number of title and wins

Age Title Wins Races to 1st race win
1. Sebastian Vettel* 23 1 10 (26th) 21
2. Lewis Hamilton* 23 1 14 (15th) 5
3. Fernando Alonso* 24 2 26 (6th) 29
4. Emerson Fittipaldi 25 2 14 (15th) 3
5. Michael Schumacher* 25 7 91 (1st) 17
6. Niki Lauda 26 3 25 (7th) 30
7. Jacques Villeneuve 26 1 11 (24th) 3
8. Jim Clark 27 2 25 (7th) 16
9. Kimi Räikkönen 28 1 18 (13th) 35
10. Jochen Rindt 28 1 6 (36th) 50

* still racing

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